A FIRSTHAND LOOK AT THE PLASTIC POLLUTION CRISIS
Last November I watched a video documenting The Ocean Legacy Foundation’s cleanup on Lasqueti Island in Canada, and the amount of marine debris collected in such a small area was absolutely shocking. As soon as the video stopped playing, I felt an urgent need to get involved — and educate myself about the plastic pollution crisis.
A quick Google search revealed that 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, and by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. If that isn't startling enough, consider this: One million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world, and less than half of those end up in recycling bins. I could start discussions online and make the commitment to reduce my consumption of single-use plastics, but was that enough? No, I decided. I could definitely do more. After the first 8 months of this year flew by with back to back projects, I finally had a few weeks off — and time to take action.
In September 2018 I drove 1,550 miles from southern California to British Columbia to volunteer with The Ocean Legacy Foundation, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wanted to help clean up the coast and connect with likeminded individuals, but what would the team be like? I have horrible social anxiety, and I was already far beyond my comfort zone. Furthermore, being at sea for over a week and landing on rocky beaches from a zodiac seemed, well, daunting. The ocean is as beautiful as she is tempestuous, and I’ll be honest: I have always felt far more comfortable on land. I had no idea what I’d be getting into physically and emotionally, but no matter what, I knew it would be worth it.
Just hours after meeting everyone, going through as safety briefing and taking off, I got seasick. Despite taking two Dramamine and opting for a very minimal breakfast, I was hurling well after my stomach was empty. As I tried to get to the top deck for fresh air, I realized I wasn’t going to make it without spilling my punch bowl of vomit on the stairs — and all over a few of my fellow crew members. A man named Dan stood on the steps, extending a muscular arm, offering to grab my barf bowl, and then my hand. I knew Dan was gold from that moment on, and after moving to the top deck, Enke the dog snuggled up next to me, giving me a knowing look. Not only was I going to be fine, but we were all here to support one another. We docked the boat, set up camp and started picking up plastic bottles, styrofoam and other trash on a nearby beach. As the last light faded from the sky, the nearly full moon rose behind the coast guard station, casting a sparkly reflection on the water. What would the next 8 days bring?
My alarm went off at 6:25am, and a few minutes after unzipping my tent, I was greeted with an explosion of pink in the sky. After a quick trek from camp to the boat, we loaded up on coffee and breakfast and got to work. We cleaned a small section of Nootka Island’s Santa Boca Provincial Park, which offers that classic Pacific Northwest scenery: Sea stacks, coniferous trees, a seemingly endless rocky, rugged coastline and an abundance of marine wildlife, including orcas, whales, sea lions, eagles, cormorants and coastal wolves. After just a few hours, we had already gathered dozens of burlap bags of plastic bottles, rope, shoes, buoys, and of course, tons of styrofoam and tires. We sorted the debris and transferred it to super sack bags, which can hold up to one ton of material. While each bag didn’t weigh one metric ton, they were filled to capacity as far as volume. Not only was it dirty, back-breaking work, but when you spend hours picking up hundreds of bottles, you begin to find a more personal connection to the plastic pollution crisis.
“Someone once touched the bottle I’m holding,” I thought to myself. Did they ever consider the fact that some months later, another human would be picking it up off of a remote island in British Columbia? Probably not.
Finding styrofoam and plastic bottles in mossy forests 200 feet from the ocean was shocking, and on our second full cleanup day, I got a big lump in my throat. After considering statistics on recycling, consumerism, a lack of clean global water sources and the millions of folks who shrug and say, “It’s just one bottle,” I felt even more helpless. How do we get people to care? It’s a question I’ve asked individuals all over the world, and the response is always some variation of this: We can share our beautiful, transformative experiences in wild places, and encourage others to seek these moments too. I can tell you what I’m doing and ask you to take action, but if you don’t feel a deep, personal connection to nature, my efforts will go largely unnoticed. However, if I share stories about time spent in the wilderness, maybe I can reach a few thousand people and strike a chord deep within their hearts. It’s worth a shot, anyway.
I am used to being sore, dirty and tired when I go backpacking, so this wasn’t that much of a change in the comfort department. The scenery was gorgeous, and from whales to wolves, there were some incredible wildlife sightings. While challenging yourself physically and completing objectives can be very rewarding, so is working as a team to improve something. Being able to do both? That can change your perspective entirely. Spending countless hours picking up other people’s trash makes you think about both your own actions, and how to get others involved. You can’t unsee thousands of pounds of plastic bottles, styrofoam and food wrappers, and once you have the desire to do more, it only grows stronger. It’s also important to think of the big picture and work together to find viable long-term solutions. While picking up litter is a great start, if it’s going straight back to landfill, that’s not accomplishing a whole lot. So, aside from planning (and getting brands and communities involved), what else can we do?
The Ocean Legacy Foundation not only organizes cleanup expeditions from the spring through the fall, but they have a facility in Vancouver where they sort and process the material that is collected on their trips — and sent to them by other parties. This center has become a marine debris hub for more then 20 cleanup organizations and initiatives. For example, Lush Cosmetics uses some of the recycled plastic in their product packaging, and Foam Only takes styrofoam and repurposes it into picture frames, among other objects. On top of that, The Ocean Legacy Foundation has a system that can turn certain types of recyclable plastic into both diesel and gasoline fuel.
Another day of picking up the beaches, and another boatload of trash hand-delivered to the dock at Yuquot. When we finish our weeklong cleanup, a bigger barge will gather all the debris we collected and transport it to The Ocean Legacy’s warehouse for sorting and processing. We’re starting to run out of room on the dock, so we’ve stacked some of the super sacks on top of one another and re-sorted a few others to maximize space. Every night, we sail back to home base just as the sun is setting, and with warmth on our faces and a deep satisfaction from the hours spent cleaning up the coast, it’s a nice way to wave goodbye to the day. And with the promise of amazing food and a bonfire on the beach before we tuck into our tents, it isn’t over yet. Andrew is our cook, and everything he makes is devoured within minutes. And not just because we’re hungry — because he’s a wizard in the kitchen. When you have a crew of 17 people who are walking 4-5 miles a day and lugging hundreds of pounds of marine debris around, food matters.
It’s the people you meet on these kinds of trips who offer both inspiration and perspectives you might not have previously considered. When you see others dedicating a great part of their lives to places and causes, it only makes you want to learn more — and do more.
Chloé Dubois is the executive director and co-founder of The Ocean Legacy, and the former kayak instructor is mom to Anke the dog, and an all-around awesome human. She works hard, loves the outdoors and she’s making it her mission to find solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. While acknowledging the problem, Chloé always maintained a positive outlook, and she shared her connection to these wild, stunning landscapes.
It’s the same connection that Ray Williams feels to this land, which is where he’s lived for nearly 7 decades. Ray is Mowachaht First Nations, and we met up at sunrise on day six and discussed everything from overfishing to pollution to the wolves on Nootka Island. Ray explained why, even at the age of 78, he feels a strong urge to speak up on behalf of preserving these areas. “Every summer, my wife and the boys walk the beach back here, and at times we collect four or five garbage bags with plastic bottles, pop cans, chip wrappings, chocolate wrappings and ziplock bags. Something should be done or there should be stronger restrictions on how people get rid of their junk...The way we see it, it looks like they don’t care at all.”
We can do better, and we can do more. And in a world where we have resources like social media to share imagery and thoughts, why not use our platforms for good — and to educate? Consumerism is not more important than conservation, yet when I scroll through Instagram, it seems like quite the opposite.
We left Yuquot early in the morning, and rather than heading out on the Pacific, we traveled via the much calmer inside passage to Catala Island. We cruised by a commercial logging operation that had clear cut through a giant swath of the coastal forest, but then we caught an incredible whale sighting along the way as well. It’s always so strange to see two extremes like this existing in the space of 5 minutes, but it’s an adequate representation of where we we stand on this planet. How much longer can humans and their consumption of resources stay within relative balance of the landscapes and wildlife around us?
When we arrived on the shore of Catala Island in the afternoon, we quickly got to work and marked a grid for the NOAA marine debris survey, which had The Ocean Legacy Foundation gathering data on the re-accumulation of trash in the area. We logged GPS points, analyzed all of the debris we collected in the study area, and continued to pick up the rest of the beach before the sun dropped. While we still filled up several super sack bags of trash, it did seem as though the area was showing signs of improvement from previous cleanups. As much as this crew lives for filling up bag after bag of bottles, styrofoam, metal, buoys and netting, among other things, it was great to see that the removal of debris is having a positive impact on some areas, thus giving us the opportunity to target new locations and hopefully start that same cycle there. It was our last full cleanup day, and we accomplished everything we set out to do.
After seven full cleanup days, and covering approximately twelve miles of coastline, we filled up 64 one-ton capacity super sack bags and collected over 100 tires — and 4 super sacks worth of buoys.
We left Catala Island in the morning and headed back to Yuquot, dropping off the last of the super sacks on the dock. A larger barge would come a few days later, grabbing all of the marine debris and transporting it to The Ocean Legacy Foundation’s processing facility in Vancouver. I snapped a few photos of Chloe and four other volunteers perched atop the mountain of trash, and after scooping them up, we started the journey back. But rather than heading directly back to the charming and sleepy surf town of Tofino, we called it a night about 20 miles from there, electing to camp by some hot springs along the beach. I knew I’d get dirty on this trip, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect. We picked up a lot of trash in a very small area, and it was exhausting. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but let’s just say this: It was not a walk in the park. I was very sore, because spending hours bending over to pick up other people’s plastic water bottles and jumping on and off boats and zodiacs is not part of my usual training regimen. But it felt great to contribute, and the hot springs were a well-deserved reward for our stellar crew of 17.
We arrived in Tofino in the early afternoon, and after a celebratory late lunch, we parted ways. Aside from two volunteers who lived outside of Tofino, the rest of us were returning to Vancouver. Our captain and a few crew members would depart first thing the next morning, and they planned on a 2-day voyage back to home base, while the remaining volunteers carpooled to Nanaimo to catch the ferry that night. I chose to stay behind at a quiet campground in Tofino, and after grabbing a hot shower and downloading my memory card, I had some time to think before I passed out in the back of my Jeep.
If the debris we collected in just over a week represents just a fraction of what is actually in the ocean and along coastlines all over the world, how do we begin to make a dent in the plastic pollution crisis? I don’t know that a perfect solution exists, but here are some ideas:
Step 1: Care and educate yourself. Read up on marine garbage patches, stats on recycling and what your favorite companies are doing to help.
Step 2: Act. This means donating money, volunteering with organizations like The Ocean Legacy Foundation, reducing your own plastic consumption by recycling, reusing and being aware of what actually happens when you discard single-use items — even if you think they’re biodegradable/recyclable. In addition to cleanups (which generally take place spring through early fall), The Ocean Legacy Foundation is always looking for volunteers at their Vancouver facility, where they sort and process debris. If you’re in the states, Surfrider is another awesome nonprofit that organizes coastal cleanups.
Step 3: Speak up, and get others on board.
The ocean is unpredictable and the amount of debris we came across was overwhelming, but given all the challenges we faced, I felt as though the planning and execution of this cleanup expedition was incredibly efficient and well-organized. Not only would I like to volunteer more of my time with nonprofits like The Ocean Legacy Foundation, but I would love to both individuals and companies follow suit, both with time, money and a commitment to find solutions. We’re all in this together, so why not team up and maximize our impact?